Suicide isn’t a criminal offence but that doesn’t mean it’s a ‘right’.

Marie Fleming has lost her appeal to the Supreme Court in Ireland against a ruling of the High Court in January this year

Marie Fleming has lost her appeal to the Supreme Court in Ireland against a ruling of the High Court in January this year.  The High Court had ruled that Section 2(2) of the 1993 Criminal Law (Suicide) Act was not unconstitutional or incompatible with the State’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.  Under Section 2(2) it is unlawful in Ireland to ‘aid, abet counsel or procure’ the suicide or attempted suicide of another person.  Section 2(2) is similar to Section 2(1) of the 1961 Suicide Act in England and Wales. 

Ms Fleming, who has Multiple Sclerosis, had argued that because of her medical condition she was unable to end her own life without assistance and that in consequence Section 2(2) discriminated against her.  The Supreme Court found that “there is no constitutional right to commit suicide” and, therefore, issues such as discrimination did not arise. 

In its 29-page Judgment, which can be read in full on this website (see under Publications, The Law), the Court confirmed that Section 2 of Ireland’s 1993 Act “applies equally to everyone”.  It observed that “it is often the case that neutral laws will affect individuals in different ways” but that “the Court does not consider that the constitutional principle of equal treatment before the law…extends to categorise as unequal the differential indirect effects on a person of an objectively neutral law addressed to persons other than that person”.

It is ironic that the law prohibiting assistance with suicide should be challenged on grounds of discrimination.  Not only is the law, in England and Wales as well as in Ireland, neutral in its application.  It is also arguable that proposals to license assisted suicide for the terminally ill are themselves discriminatory – in that they seek to make a facility available by law to one group of people but not to others.

The notion that suicide should be a ‘right’ will strike many people as incongruous.  While suicide, or attempted suicide, has ceased to be a criminal offence, society’s attitude to suicide remains unchanged.  Suicide is still regarded as something to be discouraged and, where possible, prevented.  All the emergency responses to attempted suicides and the ‘suicide watches’ in places where people are considered to be at risk of self-harm, not to mention official suicide prevention programmes, bear ample testimony to this. 

Those seeking to legalise assistance with suicide in certain circumstances may perhaps argue that they are seeking to confer a benefit (help to end life prematurely) which some may want.  But legalisation can also be seen as posing a threat to others by removing or weakening the protection that the law provides.  It depends which end of the telescope you are looking through.